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The Accidents of Style

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Charles Harrington ElsterCharles Harrington Elster

Charles Harrington Elster is a nationally recognized authority on language. He is the orthoepist for Wordnik.com and the author of Verbal Advantage and many other books. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street... More

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Every day or everyday?
The confusion between every day and everyday occurs multiple times every day; it’s an everyday accident. Even The New York Times Magazine is not immune to it: “As a kid, I had a sailor shirt and the same old corduroy pants, and that’s what I wanted to wear everyday.” Make that every day.
What’s the difference? Every day is a stand-alone phrase that can fit almost anywhere in a sentence, while everyday is an adjective meaning “daily” or “ordinary” that always modifies a noun, as in everyday life, everyday clothes, and everyday problems.
The trick to getting it right lies in determining whether the phrase can stand by itself (“I think of you every day”) or whether it is tied to a following noun. If something can be used every day, it is suitable for everyday use. Some chores must be done every day, which makes them everyday chores. What’s the first line of the song “Everyday Blues”? It’s “Every day I have the blues,” of course.
“We see them everyday, animatedly carrying on conversations within visible companions.”                                    —The San Diego Union-Tribune
Note how the typographical error within visible for with invisible turns a logical sentence into a ludicrous one, making it appear that someone is speaking from within the body of someone else. That’s certainly not something you’re likely to see every day (not everyday).
Reckless or wreckless?
The proper spelling is reckless, with no w.
Reckless means “without caution, not caring about consequences, thoughtless, rash.” Wreckless means you haven’t been in a wreck; you have a clean driving record. Wreckless writers obey the rules of the road. Reckless writers have accidents of style.
This rudimentary mistake is surprisingly common: “Moore is also charged with wreckless driving” (WVNS-TV, West Virginia). “A petition … to end the wreckless and inhumane killing of dogs by law enforcement” (Georgetown News Democrat, Ohio). “If we were wreckless, thoughtless, or disrespectful” (Glasgow Evening Times).
Misuse of can not for cannot
“Cannot should not appear as two words,” decrees Garner’s Modern American Usage, and Mark Davidson, in Right, Wrong, and Risky, says, “Depending on which dictionary or usage book you consult, cannot is the only acceptable form, the preferred form, or the form that is by far the more common.”
The style manual of The New York Times mysteriously does not have an entry for cannot. It should, because the first instance of can not that I found among more than thirteen thousand hits on Google News was from that newspaper. Other offending sources included Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, FOX-News, The Boston Globe, and msnbc.com. Too bad the editors there failed to consult the style manual of The Associated Press, which has this terse comment on the matter: “cannot.”
So be sure to write cannot, not can not. The only exception to this dictum, says Garner, is rare: when can is part of another construction, such as not only … but also. Here’s an accident-free example from The Baltimore Sun: “By improving the way we confirm cases of the H1N1 flu, we can not only reduce public panic but also minimize the number of cases and more efficiently use our limited health resources.”
It’s a lot, not alot— and don’t ever write alittle
If alot were simply a typo, there wouldn’t be more than twenty-four hundred hits for it on Google News. Why do so many of us seem to think, in all earnestness, that a lot is one word instead of two? Clearly, a lot of people out there are typing alot on purpose, and some of them are even typing alittle too: “Alittle more than a quarter-century ago, the West Pasco Historical Society turned what is now a nearly 100-year-old building into its museum in Sims Park” (tampabay.com, the online edition of the St. Petersburg Times). It makes you wonder how long it will be before we start writing like the ancient Romans, withthewordsalltogetherlikethis. Until that woeful day, a lot is still two words in standard English, alot is an atrocious accident of style, and alittle is gibberish.
It’s no one, not noone
Most of us learned a long time ago that no one is not one word. But believe it or not, this basic boo-boo sometimes appears in edited, or at least professionally written, English. For example, an article on the website of a Philadephia TV station reports that “noone is going to be displaced,” and the updated version of a breaking news brief at the website of a TV station in the San Francisco Bay Area informs us that “police said noone was hurt.”
This mistake is distressingly common in postings at newsblogs, where Mr. and Ms. Noone don’t seem to care about the poor impression they make when their hastily composed comments contain this and other fourth-grade gaffes.
Anyway and any way are okay, but not anyways
You may do something any way you want, meaning that you do it in any manner you see fit, or you may do it anyway, meaning that you do it regardless or nevertheless. But it’s incorrect to do something anyways or to begin a statement with anyways. Bloggers who write Anyways, as I was saying, ya just gotta love him anyways may have readers who love them anyway, but they’re not likely to get a lucrative offer from a New York publisher anytime soon.
Misuse of it’s and its
Of the distinction between it’s and its, Constance Hale in Sin and Syntax writes, “Learn this or die.” You may laugh, but she’s not kidding. Confusing it’s and its is a fatal accident of style, the grammatical equivalent of a head-on collision with a Hummer at sixty-five miles an hour.
Thankfully this accident occurs mostly in informal, unedited writing, whose readers may be more forgiving of such glaring mistakes. But it does occasionally happen in reputable media outlets, and when it does you can almost hear the earsplitting screech of brakes followed by the horrible crunch of metal: “Its [It’s] a tool that doesn’t cost billions of dollars” (Los Angeles Times); “Harrigan said he expects big car companies to bring battery tech in-house within the next few years, as GM wants to do for it’s [its] Chevy Volt” (BusinessWeek); “The 100-year-old theatre is a beauty too with it’s [its] elegant creamy gold colouring” (New Zealand Herald); “Its [It’s] a shame it has to be that way” (KOMU-TV, Missouri).
Yes, it’s a shame indeed when people write Its a shame. It’s with an apostrophe is a contraction and means “it is” (or “it has”)—that’s what it’s all about. Its without an apostrophe is the possessive form of it, and mastering its proper use is its own reward.
If you’re still feeling an itsy bit ditzy about this distinction, here’s a mnemonic sentence for you: If a Hummer is heading toward you, it’s wise not to get in its way.
Misspelling of accidentally, incidentally, and coincidentally
We rarely misspell fundamentally, departmentally, supplementally, monumentally, and temperamentally, so why do we so often misspell accidentally, incidentally, and coincidentally with-ly at the end instead of -ally? It could be the lure of false analogy with words like evidently, eminently, and intently, but more likely it’s a case of spelling following pronunciation.
Many speakers condense the-ally at the end of these words into a single syllable. Instead of saying uh-lee, as they would with fundamentally (fun-duh-MENT-uh-lee) or monumentally (mahn-yuh-MENT-uh-lee), they say lee: ak-suh-DENT-lee; in-suh-DENT-lee; koh-in-suh-DENT-lee.
There is nothing wrong with this condensed pronunciation; it’s an example of syncope (SING-kuh-pee), the loss or omission of a syllable in the middle of a word, as when we say chocolate, grocery, and family in two syllables instead of three. Just be careful not to let the syncopated pronunciation become the model for your spelling. Remember, there’s an ally (uh-lee) at the end of accidentally, incidentally, and coincidentally.
Gasses or gases?
From the Chicago Tribune: “Research balloons chase volcanic gasses.” From the online National Geographic News: “A composite image of Messier 83 reveals the shining stars and red hydrogen gasses of the ‘Thousand-Ruby Galaxy.’ ” Did these estimable sources get the spelling of the plural of gas right or wrong?
Wrong. Though some dictionaries recognize gasses (dictionaries will list anything if people use it enough), Garner’s Modern American Usage, perhaps the most respected style guide in print, is unequivocal: “gases, not gasses, is the plural form of the noun gas.” The variant with two s’s is probably a mistaken analogy with the plural of words that end in double s: pass(es), miss(es), mass(es), lass(es), etc.
Watch out for busses in Accident 25.
Confusion between your and you’re
It happens to all of us at some point. Even the least accident-prone among us will get blindsided by this blunder. You’re typing away furiously on your keyboard when suddenly you’re (your!) fingers are not quite sure what your (you’re!) doing and they rebel. And despite you’re (your!) best efforts, those mutinous fingers start typing your for you’re and you’re for your, and soon your at you’re wit’s end. And of course the stupid spell-checker is no help because it was created by a software programmer that Bill Gates managed to clone from apiece of bellybutton lint.
There are two ways to handle this crisis. You can dismiss it like the cavalier contributor to the Hartford Courant blogs who wrote, “When your a ‘genious’ like me, you can spell it any way you want.” Or you can stop texting and tweeting for ten seconds and wrap your recalcitrant thumbs around these two words: spelling matters.
Yes, believe it or not, people judge you by the words you misuse—even in the casual atmosphere of e-mail and the blogosphere. If you want to be taken seriously by anyone who takes verbal expression seriously—especially teachers, employers, clients, and customers—you must never let anything you write be seen by others until you have purged it of your missteps, particularly any confusion between your and you’re.
If you sometimes have trouble remembering that your is the possessive form of you and you’re is a contraction of you are, try to memorize this: It’s your life, and you’re the master of it. You’re in control, so do your best.
Confusion of there, their, and they’re
“There is no there there,” wrote Gertrude Stein in a rare moment of lucidity at the end of one of her notoriously incoherent sentences. At least she didn’t write There is no their they’re and cause a three-car accident of style.
There refers to place or position (over there); their refers to possession (their house); and they’re is a contraction of they are (they’re going over there to their house). Reckless writers, especially Internet journalists and bloggers, sometimes dreadfully confuse these three homophones: “People need to have there [their] own plan in place” (communitycommon.com); “Whether those young adults view what their [they’re] doing as ‘banking’ remains to be seen” (Information week.com); “Sci-fi fans will feel right at home with the classic plot involving man’s desire to exploit the aliens for they’re [their] own selfish goals” (Firefox News).
There’s does not mean “there are”
There’s is a contraction of the words there is (or there has). Although in casual speech it’s not unusual to hear people use there’s to mean there are—“Hey, there’s, like, only two doughnuts left in the box”—in any writing meant for public consumption this usage is a sign of slovenliness, or perhaps evidence of a perverse belief that, good grammar be damned, we should write in the same lazy way we talk.
“There’s many good things about No Child Left Behind,” writes a candidate for city council in an interview at DesMoinesRegister.com. “There’s a few local places they still want to play,” writes Andrew Cothern in the online edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “There’s only about three mentions of me from a total of over a million results,” writes Gregory Bergman in his book BizzWords. And a pullout in an op-ed piece in The New York Times proclaims, “There’s enough lousy drivers already.”
As these quotations illustrate, there are enough careless word-slingers out there already. There’s is not “more natural” than there are. It’s just sloppy. There are no good excuses for it, and there’s nothing to be gained by it. When you mean there are, write there are.
And while we’re at it, the same advice goes for here’s, which is sometimes paired with a plural noun: “Here’s two stories you’ll never forget!” (real-estate ad headline); “Need to replace Manny? Here’s some suggestions” (headline at newsday.com). Make that Here are two stories and Here are some suggestions.
The pandemic confusion between lay and lie, yet again exposed and denounced
Most people today, including many professional writers and editors, simply have no idea how to conjugate these everyday verbs properly. Misusing lay for lie is surely the most prevalent accident of style in the English language, and despite the preventive measures proffered by scores of style guides, the collision rate continues to rise.
To use lay and lie wrecklessly, the first thing you must do is memorize these two sentences: To lay is to put or place. To lie is to come to rest, recline.
If you are not putting or placing something, you cannot use lay. That’s why I laid in bed, I laid down for a nap, I was just laying there, and I have laid in that bed before are all wrong and make you out to be a chicken who deposits fat, fresh eggs in your bed.
Here’s how the verbs are conjugated:
To lay is to put or place:
You lay the book on the table.
You are laying the book on the table.
You laid the book on the table.
You have laid the book on the table.
To lie is to come to rest, recline:
You lie on the bed.
You are lying on the bed. You lay on the bed.
You have lain on the bed.
You see how the present tense of lay is the same as the past tense of lie? That’s where all the trouble starts. You can’t tell a dog to lay down (that means put down), but you can say you lay in bed (you reclined there in the past). Confused by this, people compound the problem by misusing the past tense of lay (which is laid) for the past tense of lie (which is lay); for example, I laid in bed last night. There’s that chicken again.
I know it may be tough for you to keep these two verbs straight, especially when so many educated people around you are confounding them. But I exhort you not to chicken out. It’s worth the effort. Properly distinguishing lay and lie will distinguish you as a careful user of the language, a cultivated person just a cut above the rest.
Excerpted from The Accidents Of Style by Charles Harrington Elster.
Copyright © 2010 by Charles Harrington Elster.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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